In its 2,500 years of existence, Macedonia’s welcoming capital city has had many different incarnations. All of them – from Roman to Byzantine, from Ottoman to Yugoslav – have left indelible traces on the city, as is evidenced by Skopje’s varied architecture and its mix of cultures. Yet in addition to its strong historical associations, Skopje is also a forward-looking city offering an abundance of modern amenities and attractions.
Here one can find sleek modern hotels above cobble stoned Ottoman streets, stately neoclassical homes right around the corner from grand old Yugoslav-era buildings, chic cafes, shopping malls and brightly-coloured new offices, red-bricked Byzantine churches and rounded Turkish mosques.
The concentrated complexity of Skopje today entices visitors, offering a great variety of things to see and do and constantly reminding of the city’s storied past. Chief among sights to see are the Stone Bridge crossing the River Vardar, the Ottoman-era Old Town (Stara Charshija), and the Kale Fortress walls. In the meandering narrow streets of Stara Charshija one feels the spirit of the old city, with its little shops, mosques with their ceramic tiled interiors, and the outdoor bazaar and hamam that survive from Turkish times. A short climb up to the Kale Fortress is well rewarded; from this hilltop where Skopje’s masters ruled for centuries one enjoys a commanding view of the city and its environs.
The world’s best cities all contain at least one secluded natural escape. Skopje has two – a long, tree-lined park along the river, and the forested hills of Mt. Vodno, which overlooks the city from the southwest and offers excellent hiking and wilderness serenity within walking distance of downtown Skopje. The summit of Mt. Vodno is also crowned by the enormous Millennium Cross that presides over the city. From here one gets even more magnificent views of Macedonia’s capital.
Macedonia’s capital offers something to satisfy all modern tastes and appetites. It features brand-new cinemas, hotels and restaurants, as well as shopping malls offering all of the latest fashions, and usually at lower prices than in Western countries. The city is a major regional centre for concerts, theatrical performances, dance and sporting events, all of which frequently involve well-known stars from abroad, as well as the best in local talent.
Skopje also boasts reliable public transportation and taxis, as well as a plethora of modern internet cafes for keeping in touch with the folks back home. And it is also one of the safest cities in Europe. Hotels operating to the highest standards are centrally located; the water is eminently drinkable and the food hearty and nourishing, with all international tastes represented- in addition to the excellent local cuisine, of course!
Apart from being the capital of the modern Republic of Macedonia, Skopje has always been a centre of power long coveted by various empires.
The city founded by the Dardanians in the 3rd century B.C.E. under the name of ‘Skupi’ was prized for its strategic location, in a long valley between two hills, situated on the banks of the River Vardar, a vital trade route. Under the Romans, Skopje was made administrative centre of the Dardanian Province. The city’s prestige grew when the Orthodox Church made it an Episcopal seat during the early Byzantine Empire.
The arrival of migrating Slavic tribes from the Carpathians in the 6th century C.E. changed both the city’s name and the composition of its people, as the descendants of the ancient Macedonians were assimilated by the Slavic newcomers.
Throughout the remaining Byzantine centuries, Skopje continued to be an important mercantile centre, situated as it was at the crossroads of Balkan trade and communications routes. It was celebrated for its urban life and fortress, and renowned for having the most beautiful church in the region.
At the very end of the 14th century, Skopje and all of Macedonia fell under the sway of the Ottoman Turks. In the ensuing centuries, the look of the town changed with the construction of many mosques, Turkish baths, bridges and other buildings attesting to the new Oriental influence. Today, the Ottoman legacy remains visible in Skopje’s architecture and Islamic minority.
This latter tendency reached its apogee in 1963, when a disastrous earthquake levelled much of the regal old city.
After Macedonia was liberated from the Turks in the early 20th century, it became a republic of the Yugoslav Federation, with Skopje as the capital. At that time, the prosperous city boasted many ornate, neoclassical buildings laid out harmoniously in a more or less Central European style. However, in 1963 a disastrous earthquake levelled much of the regal old city, and Skopje was reborn in the imaginative, futuristic style in vogue at the time. An international competition to redesign the city was won by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. His creations, such as the National Theatre with its sloping roof of concrete, have shaped Skopje’s modern skyline. To this day, the clock on the remaining wall of the old railway station remains stuck at 5:17- the moment when the earthquake hit.
Today, Skopje is a modern city of almost one million, and Macedonia’s major political, economical, educational and cultural centre. It continues to attract new residents, economic development, construction and refurbishment. Skopje is also increasingly becoming a vital regional route for international flight operators. Optimism regarding Skopje’s future prospects is proving infectious, as is evidenced by the upsurge of interest from major foreign investors. The city’s growth can only add to its long and illustrious history of culture and commerce.